Atrocities: The 100 Deadliest Episodes in Human History is the better-titled trade paperback edition of The Great Big Book of Horrible Things: The Definitive Chronicle of History’s 100 Worst Atrocities. The first line of the introductory paragraph of the promotional material reads: “Here is a very good book about very bad things.” For once, the promo copy is not hyperbole. In addition to being very good, coming in at 670 pages (given the subject, a pity the publisher couldn’t have made it an even 666 pages), it also lives up to the claim of “definitive chronicle.” Compiled by self-proclaimed “atrologist” – expert of atrocities – Matthew White (creator of the online Historical Atlas of the Twentieth Century) recounts in an amazingly entertaining fashion the worst acts of mayhem and massacre in recorded history.
Instead of arranging the book in an escalating fashion, the atrocities are organized according to theme, “Crazed Tyrants” being a particularly fascinating one.
White, a librarian, has done an impressive job compiling his facts and figures and making cases for his top 100 atrocities, the minimum qualifying death toll being 300,000 killed. Regarding his criteria, he wrote, “I use a broad definition because I find it unseemly to bicker about whether some victims deserve more pity than others. If I counted only the deliberate killing of civilians while excluding the accidental killing of civilians, then I would be spending all my time trying to decide whether malice was intended.” While his scholarship is impressive, his narrative is what really makes the book.
Given the nature of the topic, it would be almost a knee-jerk assumption to think that this would be a sober chronicle of doom and gloom. White does treat the material seriously and with respect, but he refuses to be depressed or overwhelmed by it. His narrative is engaging – enlivened by wry observations, touches of humor, and a willingness to challenge previous assertions and concede imperfection and error.
Instead of arranging the book in an escalating fashion, the atrocities are organized according to theme, “Crazed Tyrants” being a particularly fascinating one. As such, each section contains atrocities of different sizes and eras. For those liking their lists straightforward, the back of the book contains a list ranking the atrocities starting with World War II at No. 1 with 66 million dead, and ending with Saddam Hussein at No. 100, responsible for 300,000 deaths. In between are such atrocities as Aztec Human Sacrifice (No. 45 with 1.2 million dead), the Napoleonic Wars (No. 26 with 4 million dead), Mideast Slave Trade (No. 8 with 18.5 million dead), and Somalian Chaos (No. 78 with 500,000 dead). White is also deft at showing how a surprising number of the atrocities are connected to each other, his most compelling assertion being that the bloody legacy of World War II extended throughout the rest of the 20th century, even to the attacks on 9/11.
His death tallies sometimes split the difference between the highest and lowest claims by historians and contemporary accounts. An example here is figuring out how many people Josef Stalin (No. 6 with 20 million dead) was responsible for killing. White explains that there “are three schools of thought” regarding this. The high-end claimants state 40 to 60 million deaths, the low-end hard number types state 2,376,476 (the total of officially recorded executions and deaths in the gulag). The accepted consensus figure, first put forth by historian Robert Conquest, is somewhere between 20 to 30 million. White chose to take the low end of that consensus. Sometimes, particularly in ancient world death rolls, he freely concedes that his totals are more the result of informed guesswork than hard information, and it’s that type of disarming concession that adds to the book’s appeal.
Mao Zedong (in the “Crazed Tyrants” section) occupies a lengthy chapter. White puts him at No. 2 on his list with 40 million dead, so he’s got some explaining to do, which he does quite well. White’s aside about the critics and defenders of Mao’s retribution against people who took him at his word when he requested constructive criticism during the Hundred Flowers Campaign is a typical example of his wry wit: “Mao’s critics say [murderous retribution] was his diabolical plan all along; Mao’s defenders explain that he started with honest intentions, but was surprised, insulted, and, frankly, a little bit hurt when people started picking on him, so he had them all punished (I don’t know why this is better than ‘he planned it all along’).”
An additional strength is White’s role as a disinterested observer. With no preconceived ideological platform, he openly shares all he’s discovered regarding the various causes of death, from battlefield violence, to neglect, through deliberate acts or by mistakes. Many will find particular facts and points arguable, something White accepts because he is comfortable in acknowledging that no matter how exact we try to make it, the telling of history remains a messy and imprecise effort.